Comments on Amtrak's new "Five year plans"

Discussion in 'Amtrak Rail Discussion' started by neroden, Mar 24, 2019.

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  1. Mar 24, 2019 #1

    neroden

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    First, the Service Line plans.

    -----
    The route-level and even service-line-level accounting is still essentially fraudulent, double-counting costs on the Empire Builder and Lake Shore Limited, for example. It has enough data, however, that I was able to back out a rough estimate of the avoidable costs of running each train, using my previous methodology (I'm still relying on Boardman's bar chart from 2012, but I have updated overhead estimates). For the so-called long-distance trains, I concluded:
    -- The Auto Train, Silver Star, Palmetto, Silver Meteor, Empire Builder, Coast Starlight, Crescent, and Lake Shore Limited are all profitable (roughly in that order), in the sense that cancelling any one of them would make Amtrak require more operating subsidy. (If you disregard seasonal effects, you could also say this as follows: each time one of these trains is cancelled, Amtrak loses money.)
    -- The City of New Orleans and Cardinal are essentially breakeven, in the same sense.
    -- The trains which probably actually cost slightly more to run than their revenues are the Sunset Limited (by a large margin the most expensive, probably about 11 million a year net), Southwest Chief, Texas Eagle, Capitol Limited, and California Zephyr (all together, probably about 13 million a year net).

    This doesn't include costs of replacing equipment, but does include maintenance. It's coming out plausible, without large changes from 2014 (the last year I have estimates for in my spreadsheet).
    Profits are probably down significantly from 2014 on the Auto Train, and Meteor, but up on the Palmetto and Star. Down significantly on the LSL (obviously due to the trashing Amtrak has inflicted upon it in the last few years); down on the Capitol Limited. Up substantially on the Crescent and CONO; up on the Coast Starlight, CZ, and SWC; flat on the Cardinal and Texas Eagle.

    The Capitol Limited needs to become the Broadway Limited again, but more importantly, Amtrak needs to stop promulgating fake accounting. Amtrak lies outright in its service line plan, saying "... $543.2M funded operating losses on long-distance routes," which is a flat-out dishonest fraudulent lie.

    The long-distance routes are, as a group, profitable before overhead and depreciation. If you try to estimate depreciation costs (also not really doable with Amtrak data), then they probably cost something, but way less than that fake number. (The fake number would require that reequipping the fleet for 20 years costs $10.9 billion dollars, which it won't.)

    I am, however, glad that the first thing in the Long Distance Service Line discussion after the fake numbers is On Time Performance, and that they promptly single out the freight train interference. That is a good focus.
    ----

    Unfortunately, they continue with some more deranged lies. This sounds like Stephen Gardner, who does not know what he's talking about: "Long-distance trains have littele attraction for Millennials, the nation's largest population group which already accounts for more travel spending than any other age cohort. Olnly 16% of adult long-distance passengers are less than 35 years old."
    Only 16% of adult passengers! Sounds like a big deal!

    Except that they don't give this number for the Acela. I bet you there are hardly any Millennials on the Acela; they mostly can't afford it. And they don't give this number for the Northeast Regional either.

    Now, let's look at the US population.
    https://www.kff.org/other/state-indicator/distribution-by-age/?currentTimeframe=0&sortModel={"colId":"Location","sort":"asc"}
    21% of the US population is 1935, but 25% are children, so that's 21/76 or 28% of the adult population. 16% is certainly *lower* than 28%, but people ages 19-35 have *less money* than older people, and trains are relatively expensive, so this is only to be expected.

    As far as I can tell, long-distance trains are pretty popular with millennials; they're just more popular with people with more money, and they have a hardcore set of older riders. (According to older studies, the weak spot in train ridership habit was the Baby Boomers, currently considered to be 55 to 75 years old.)

    Further on, we see that 37% of adult riders are 65 or older. Wait a sec -- only 16% of the population is that old. Yes, there's a hardcore set of older riders.

    So let's exclude them and look at the 19-65 demographic. That's 60% of the population. We might expect 21 / 60 = 35% of that to be Millennials. Now let's look at the 19-65 Amtrak rider population -- that's 63% of the *adult* Amtrak riders. In fact 25% of that is millennials. Still a bit low (are we GenXers riding more than average?), but quite within the volume of "explained by high prices and poor OTP". This is probably a higher percentage than the Millennials riding the Acela, which Amtrak did not report.
     
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  2. Mar 24, 2019 #2

    neroden

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    So, on the good side: the NEC cafe menu is supposed to come to the entire national network's cafe cars. Part of it already has -- the upgraded cafe cars in 2018 have a bunch of elements from the NEC menu, just not all of them. They're trying to replace the point-of-sale system for food and beverage STILL (haven't they been working on this for 10 years?) and are planning to fininsh in 2020.

    They're talking more connectivity with state-supported services. Though the only example given is extending the Heartland Flyer. I'd like to see the LSL connect with the Vermonter, for example.
     
  3. Mar 24, 2019 #3

    neroden

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    Upon reflection, there is one sign of clearer thinking at Amtrak; they are considering the "two night" trains as being different from the one-night trains. This is explicitly mentioned twice in the "service plan".

    They are. They are really different. I've never heard Amtrak mention this before. I hope this is a sign that they are starting to recognize that the Lake Shore Limited is not anything like the Sunset Limited.
     
  4. Mar 24, 2019 #4

    neroden

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    No comments on the "Transportation" (operations) plan, other than that they're giving everyone new ADA training.

    "Infrastructure" plan is deeply unsurprising.

    Stations plan:

    Lots of vagueness.

    They're planning to model pedestrian flows. This sounds very Penn Station NY focused.

    The Clinton Street Blue Line connection seems to be a committed plan, although only the first block (of two) is funded (through the office tower developer).

    ----

    Amtrak is trying to get all its property ownership in a computer database, to avoid problems like the one where they were paying someone rent for a property they weren't renting and not billing people for rent on property they owned and so on.

    FYI, this -- lack of property recordkeeping -- is a problem with all the Class I railroads; San Diego Trolley was held up for over a YEAR on their Trolley Renewal Project trying to buy some random slivers of property from Union Pacific. The problem was that Union Pacific didn't realize that they owned the property and had to be convinced that they did (through a careful supply of county and corporate records) and then they had to find someone at UP able and willing to sign off on selling it, when this wasn't something they had any knowledge of. Eminent domain might have been quicker!

    ---
    I'll discuss ADA stuff in another post.


    ----
    There is a bizarre mention of "Shift Amtrak customer facilities to Moynihan Train Hall, while retaining night operations in Penn Station." I hope that doesn't mean something idiotic like the Moynihan Train Hall closing at night and #66/67 customers being dumped out in Penn. At least the new East End Concourse will remain open 24/7.

    Amtrak still thinks they need more tracks at Penn Station. (They are incorrect. NJT needs to through-run to LIRR.)
    ---
    FY2019 funding for Chicago (only $6 million + $5 million reserve) is going to "advance final design for near-term improvements to the high-level mail platform to bring Amtrak's first level-boarding passenger platform at the station". I hope this means level boarding on the LSL in 2021 or so.

    They seem to expect the building in the parking garage lot to start in fall 2019, but they don't seem to expect construction on the Headhouse (2 hotels, overbuild, etc.) to start until the indefinite future.
    ----
    They think it'll take until 2021 to finish "track 22" at Washington Union Station.
     
    Last edited: Mar 24, 2019
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  5. Mar 24, 2019 #5

    neroden

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    ADA:

    ---
    Amtrak's new target for ADA compliance is the end of the five-year plan (i.e. 2024), only 14 years after they were legally required to comply. Good luck. They're going to delay platform projects until later ('cuz they're hard), which is a pretty serious error IMO.

    They are going to prioritize "train access deficiencies" as #1. Later, they say that means getting to the platform and having some way to lift a wheelchair from platform to train. That is the correct priority. #2 is the Passenger Information Display Systems, which are essentially low-hanging fruit (simple to install... if you have a finished platform), and yes, they should make that a priority. #3 is "station access and/or key amenity deficiences", which I assume means restrooms and waiting rooms and ticket counters and the like.

    The problem with postponing platform work is simple: you have to redo the entire route from the station to the platform and replace all the PIDS if you replace the platform, especially with a height change. So. Do everything twice.

    ----
    -
    Amtrak's new target for ADA compliance is the end of the five-year plan (i.e. 2024), only 14 years after they were legally required to comply. Good luck. They're going to delay platform projects until later ('cuz they're hard), which is a pretty serious error (ALWAYS DO PLATFORMS FIRST).

    They are going to prioritize "train access deficiencies" as #1. I'm not sure what that means. If it means getting to the platform and having some way to lift a wheelchair from platform to train, that is the correct priority. #2 is the Passenger Information Display Systems, which are essentially low-hanging fruit (simple to install... if you have a finished platform), and yes, they should make that a priority. #3 is "station access and/or key amenity deficiences", which I assume means restrooms and waiting rooms and ticket counters and the like.

    The problem with postponing platform work is simple: you have to redo the entire route from the station to the platform and replace all the PIDS if you replace the platform, especially with a height change. So. Do everything twice.

    Level boarding platforms where required by law should obviously be built along with the rest of the "train access", but that's not how they're talkin'.
    ----

    Amtrak is still having trouble getting the last five flag stops formally reclassified as stations. These are Fulton KY, Hazlehurst MS, McComb MS, Newbern-Dyersburg TN, and Yazoo City, MS. In other words, CN's the one causing delays. Amtrak says obliquely that it will ask the FRA what to do if CN is still causing problems later in the year.

    -----
    The ADA compliance update is finally appended to the "stations asset line plan". It looks sloppy. Amtrak seems to believe that it has to redo ALL its land surveys and ADA assessments.

    12 stations are believed to require no action due to current projects (great), but all the rest are listed as needing both land surveys and ADA assesments. I really hope this isn't correct, because it means the hundreds of land surveys they'd done previously were all wrong. It's probably a reporting error. All of these except one are listed as "Projects to be Completed Using Prior Funding", with one remaining ADA assessment funded out of the current budget.

    I see that they are redoing the assessments because the 1991 ADAAG were replaced by the 2006 DOTAS guidelines -- fine -- but why do they have to redo the land surveys?

    There is a pretty inscrutable line: "Number of Stations That Will Require Phase 2 Work", which is 70; these are stations where the project has been divided into two phases, I guess.

    Out of the 376 stations + 70 "phase 2" projects, there are apparently 185 funded for design under the previous funding, and 128 under the current funding; 136 funded for construction under the previous funding and 133 under the current funding. They'll be short 170 projects, which optimistically means 100 stations, but probably means 170 stations.

    Amtrak also expects to find more problems as they reassess all the stations, so they ain't gonna be fully complaint by 2023.

    ----
    Now, to "train access deficiencies", we finally get the meat of the information.
    In the original analysis, there were 14 stations where Amtrak customers in wheelchairs had significant obstacles getting on the train, plus 10 of the reclassified flag stops, for a total of 24.

    Amtrak has dropped Philadelphia-North from the stations construction program because "operational and security challenges are the reasons for access deficiency". I.e., it's physically fine. I suppose they're doing something illegal like locking the elevators. I do wonder what's going on there -- sounds like a lawsuit against Amtrak (who has 100% responsibility) waiting to happen -- but I guess the operations department has to address *that* ADA challenge.

    Of the 23, Amtrak markes 1 as complete, 4 in progress, 3 targeted for 2019, 11 for 2020, 2 for 2021, and 2 for 2023 (suuuuure -- I've noticed that anything assigned to the last year of a five-year plan means "we have no plan").

    PIDS is still being assessed.

    For access to station buildings / restrooms/ticket counters, Amtrak has finished 37 out of 47 and the remaining 10 are being done this year. Great, but this wasn't the top priority...

    Finally, Amtrak discusses "stations that require level boarding once altered". Amtrak counts 15 of these. 5 are done, 3 in progress, 3 in 2019... 3 in 2021 and 1 in 2023. I do wonder which station is the unlikely station scheduled for 2023.

    ----
    Amtrak's metrics for success are going to basically count how much of the backlog of KNOWN ("or potential") deficiences have been corrected each year. Which makes sense given that so little progress has been made in the past.
     
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  6. Apr 11, 2019 #6

    Palmland

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    I’m curious why this is a good thing. Just returned from a trip on an NEC regional and asked for chicken tenders I had seen on the National menu. I was told abruptly that was only on long distance trains. They only had the Corridor Menu. On my trip up on the Palmetto I had a cheeseburger. An unbelievable gooey mess. Guess the attendant hadn’t mastered the nuances of the microwave.
     
    Last edited: Apr 11, 2019
  7. Apr 11, 2019 #7

    neroden

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    You should think about how bad the National menu was before. No reasonable breakfast options. No greens. Now you can get a salad or hard-boiled eggs.
     
  8. Apr 11, 2019 #8

    thully

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    What are they doing as far as a Clinton Street Blue Line connection? I can't find the document anywhere... One complaint I've always had with Chicago Union Station is the lack of a direct connection to the 'L' (though Clinton and Quincy are walkable). The new bus hub does help, though it seems strange that CTA trains don't connect to Union Station directly.
     
  9. Apr 11, 2019 #9

    jis

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    In any other city in the world they would have already built a grade separated enclosed walkway possibly with a travelator connecting to Quincy/Wells possibly along Adams St. Admittedly the bascule bridge would be an interesting issue to deal with, but not rocket science. In many places that walkway would also be air conditioned, or at least heated given Chicago's weather.
     
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  10. Apr 12, 2019 #10

    neroden

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    The plan is an underground walking tunnel directly to the Clinton St. Blue Line mezzanine.

    Not sure how this will integrate with the oft-delayed plans to make Clinton St. wheelchair accessible, which it is not. But both plans seem to be geting indefinitely delayed.

    The history behind this situation in Chicago is weird; it has to do with the pre-Amtrak railroads and the taxi companies of the 19th century. The taxi companies campaigned to prevent any unified central intercity station *and* to prevent public transit routes which could interconnect the stations. Because they wanted people to take taxis. They succeeded.
     
  11. Apr 13, 2019 #11

    thully

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    A tunnel to Clinton Blue Line makes sense. The four different commuter rail downtown terminal stations is another weird thing about Chicago (though I guess NY has this to a lesser extend with Penn/Grand Central). I figured it had to do with the historical railroads, but never heard that the taxi companies had anything to do with it. Has there ever been a modern effort to unify one or more of them?
     
  12. Apr 13, 2019 #12

    west point

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    Back when if a passenger books thru CHI the RR added a coupon for passengers to ride a taxi or limo service. Thru Pullman cars just stay on car.
     
  13. Apr 13, 2019 #13

    Palmland

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    Transferring between stations in Chicago pre-Amtrak couldn’t have been easier. Checker, Yellow (and for that matter today’s ride share companies) didn’t stand a chance. Parmelee Transfer had it locked up. My last such trip was from the GM&O (Union) to NYC (LaSalle) and was painless. The history was discussed in some detail on the Coachbuilt website. An except:

    “Parmelee Transfer not only transferred passengers and their hand baggage, they also dealt with checked-through baggage and offered the same local passenger pickup and delivery service offered by the hotels. Parmelee negotiated verbal contracts with all the major railroads serving Chicago, and eventually took over most of the hotel’s omnibus business as well.

    Chicago-bound passengers were furnished with Parmelee transfer coupons when they purchased their tickets as Parmelee was paid directly by the hotels and railroads and collected no cash from their passengers. Parmelee was also furnished with complimentary offices in railway depots and their representatives often boarded incoming trains at an out-lying station in order to ready passengers and their baggage for transfer.”
     
  14. Apr 13, 2019 #14

    Ryan

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    Not having to transfer would have been easier.
     
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  15. Apr 13, 2019 #15

    GBNorman

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    Well, Ryan, if you arrived on the Broadway Limited and were connecting to the North Coast Limited, Olympian Hiawatha, or Empire Builder, no need. If you arrived on The Century, then no need if you were connecting to the Golden State. and if you arrived on the Erie Limited, you could connect to the Super Chief, all without changing stations.

    But with seven stations more connections than not required Parmelee.
     
    Last edited: Apr 13, 2019
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  16. Apr 13, 2019 #16

    Willbridge

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    Growing up in Portland, Oregon it was the Pennsy that interested us for connections via UP/Milwaukee Road or the Northern Lines/Q in Union Station. However, as service collapsed, we sent students to our DC studies program via one of the last routings that combined scenery, history and good service: the North Coast Limited to the B&O Capitol Limited. Sooner or later, the Parmalee station transfer was a factor.

    Here's 1951 Chicago...
    pennsy28Jan51stnsk.jpg
     
  17. Apr 13, 2019 #17

    Willbridge

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    From early experience with the tri-weekly Coast Starlight and North Coast Hiawatha and later observations of the Clinton-era "try weakly" transcons, I'm not surprised that the Sunset shows up poorly. All kinds of expenses that do not vary in direct relationship with the annual train-miles versus revenue curtailed by the impracticality of setting up itineraries.
     
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  18. Apr 13, 2019 #18

    Ryan

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    Yes, GB, I am well aware of that. I was responding to the “couldn’t be easier” statement in light of the following:

    It *could* have been easier if not for that interference and the construction of a consolidated Union Station as happened in pretty much every other major city.
     
  19. Apr 13, 2019 #19

    GBNorman

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    As early as 1959, there was consideration given to a terminal consolidation, in which four South Loop stations would be combined into Union Station. C&NW (Olgivie), and Central stations would be unaffected.

    I actually saw the report, made by a firm named DeLeuw Cather, while at the University of Illinois.

    It of course took until the Amtrak era to make it happen, but it was interesting that with the 1959 level of trains, it was considered.
     
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  20. Apr 13, 2019 #20

    GBNorman

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    The September 1955 transition from Unionized Parmelee to Non-Union Keeshin/Railroad Transfer did "not exactly" end with a singing around the campfire of "Kumbaya":

    https://www.courtlistener.com/opini...pany-a-delaware-corporation-v-john-l-keeshin/

    We should note that Parmelee lives on. It was at one time the "official" Airport Express Loop to Midway and O'Hare under the name of Continental Air Transport. When the concept of the "Airport Limousine" went the way of the rotary dial phone, they evolved to GO Airport Transit operating in thirty nine cities. At Chicago airports, they retain the unique "grandfather" as the only airport livery that can pick up and drop off from the inner island as O"Hare. They are the only operator allowed to have a staffed ticket office; all others must rely on phone service.
     
    Last edited: Apr 13, 2019
  21. Apr 14, 2019 #21

    saxman

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    This is what frustrates me to why we keep seperating the long distance trains from everything else. Most people use to the LD trains as corridor trains. It just happens the same equipment keeps going much further, creating dozens more corridors and city pairs in which people use. Plus they have the added revenue of a premium product, sleepers!

    I'm always looking at RPA's fact sheets that break down ridership from each station and the most popular cities from there. One thing Amtrak never shows us is how many people are making connections at the end points to or from state supported routes or the NEC. In Chicago, that number is huge! One advocate meeting I went to show a nice chart showing the said connections. This goes along with your comment on if a LD train were cut, how much revenue would the state routes lose. I'm curious how you came up with your metrics.
     
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  22. Apr 15, 2019 #22

    neroden

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    Thanks for the details about Parmalee Transfer; I knew there'd been one company campaigning against Chicago station consolidation in the 19th and early 20th century, but I had not known its actual *name*.
     
  23. Apr 15, 2019 #23

    neroden

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    This is exactly what frustrates me too!

    Basically I used the breakdown of avoidable losses for each of the so-called LD trains from the chart which Boardman presented to Congress once, subtracted this from the fake fully allocated losses to figure out the bogus allocations of unavoiable costs to each train, and then assumed that the allocations between trains remained in the same proportion, while getting new estimates for the total costs arbitrarily allocated to the group out of later annual reports. I didn't try to figure lost connecting revenue.

    It's been so many years since that chart that my estimates probably only have one digit of precision at this point. But Amtrak's bogus allocation methods remain unchanged, as RPA's white paper showed. So the methodology is sound.
     
  24. Apr 21, 2019 #24

    Willbridge

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    Andrew Selden, who has been following Amtrak "accounting" for a long time has a well-organized discussion of what is going on in Railway Age as of April 20th. It complements your work. Among other things, it asks the same question I have been asking: even if the PRIIA does not prevent trashing the long-distance network, it does in practical politics and service planning prevent setting up new corridors. So how is what is happening different from strangling Amtrak?
     
  25. Apr 30, 2019 #25

    daybeers

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    How can you call the LD routes corridors when they frequently show up multiple hours late, or even if on time, in the middle of the night? Not to mention they're often slower than driving and certainly much slower than flying.
     

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